I guess you could call it a toy, that wheel of heavy-stock paper set between die-cut layers of shirt cardboard and anchored with a grommet. While my right pointer finger advanced it president by president, I pinched the grommet between the thumb and fingers of my left hand. Sometimes the wheel flew, a wonderfully tactile presence against my skin. Sometimes its pace was studied, my fingernail probing carefully at the wheel’s edge and moving it forward millimeter by millimeter. I don’t remember how many presidents there were in all. Maybe it ended with FDR or Truman, though possibly Dwight Eisenhower. Each president rolled by in ordered profile, the dates of his presidency and life printed below his picture.
The wheel was one of my most prized possessions—up there with my collection of holy cards—and something I carried with me on hurried walks to the store for bread or milk, a thing I could fiddle with and read since my book was at home on the bed. The waiting book might itself have been a child’s presidential biography borrowed from library shelves of orange-bound books that included histories of Davy Crockett and Harriet Tubman and Amelia Earhart (certainly a reason I’m drawn to articles about Earhart even now). But the stories of the presidents had particular resonance. The campaign biographies that were their basis made the presidents heroic, mythical people whose rise to the top tapped into the nation’s founding myths and patriotic symbols and fondness for celebrity.
The first president I was aware of, I saw. I was four and my perch was my father’s shoulders in a dark railroad terminal where we’d waited for Harry Truman’s whistle stop train. And there he was at the back of a bunting-draped car. The president! Somebody importantly famous. It was the start of my absorption with politics that included the black and white static of the Army-McCarthy hearings—“Senator, have you no shame?”—and the hole in Adlai Stevenson’s shoe, and convention dramas with memorably named politicians like Estes Kefauver and the 50s primness of the Nixon family and sudden glamour of the Kennedys. The characters in those mid-century political dramas were their dominant first message just as the story of George Washington and his cherry tree was far more indelible than the list of his presidential acts. Over time, the urgency of policy grew on me, yet it was always tied to the stories of the presidents, to the clothes their wives wore.
Recently, it’s that sense of the whole narrative political package that’s led me to some oddly connected thoughts about what writing can do. This is a big jump, but take the leap with me while I introduce * “The Huguenot’s Doom,” a poem I’ve toyed with posting as my favorite worst poem, yet never quite could. Not that it isn’t my favorite. It absolutely is. But its unintentional transformation of a heartbreaking scene into pure comedy, with its mild insult to words of the gore- by-the -door and the specific and hilarious Fred, couldn’t move me past a horror at what the actual scene would have been. It felt too much about threatened sons, too much about terrible losses, so I didn’t officially add it to Favorites, and I won’t.
I do salute this poem, however, for the many times it’s made me laugh and for what it reveals of the way a genius bit of atrocious writing can strip terror from a scene and make it ridiculous instead. Writing is serious and powerful that way, and if you think I’m going to combine my musings on presidents with comments on the sort of language manipulation that runs roughshod through political campaigns, I’m not going to do that either, although I could. Instead I want to point to the writing of Maureen Dowd, New York Times columnist and frequent commenter on presidents and their wives, who writes so well that she won a Pulitzer Prize. Dowd has an unquestionable gift with language and she, too, shows its power. And yet, after years of following my curiosity to her columns and reading as she shreds presidents and presidential candidates for their real or imagined failings, as she callously rips open an old wound in Laura Bush or ridicules Hillary Clinton for hiring an Arkansas decorator with the wonderful name of Kaki Hockersmith to furnish the White House, and in spite of the occasional column she nails, I wish she were a habit I could break. I’d prefer the stories in those childhood biographies that, for all their oversimplification and apocrypha ring truer for the kind of respect they show for the people who do hard jobs for us and—who knows?—might do them better if they were not the subject of such routine viciousness.
I don’t trust myself to reform. As I said, language is powerful. If it can make me laugh at something I can barely allow myself to write—the idea of three dead sons—I know how addictive it can be, how thoroughly it sticks.
*The Huguenot’s Doom
“Oh, are ye men, and have ye hearts of steel
That for no human woe can feel,
To whom love’s agony is nought?
I tell you I’m the youngest son of five;
And three lie in their gore
Down by the great hall-door,
And Fred and I are all that are alive!”
–John Stanyan Bigg
Note: *The Huguenot’s Doom” is reproduced from The Worst English Poets compiled by Christopher Adam and published by Allan Wingate Ltd., London, 1958.